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How to Teach the First World War

Posted by Scott Pollock
13 September 2014 - 5:51pm

As we begin to move through a series of anniversaries related to the First World War, history teachers will likely be asked to focus more attention on this era. I know that I, as a practicing high school teacher, am already seeing signs of increased interest from students and my school community. While any indication of interest in history is of course very welcome, the challenge many educators will face is to present the events of the war in a rich and multilayered fashion when the narrative offered by other sources (e.g., media, video games) is so often focused upon one group- the soldiers- and even then presents an overly simplified account.

There are, of course, many ways to approach this problem (and I would encourage anyone reading this to share any good ideas by commenting below). I, however, have decided to problematize my students’ collective memory of the First World War by focusing upon the issue of commemoration.

What do I mean by this? Well, in a nutshell I want my students to examine local First World War monuments, asking when they were constructed, who they are commemorating and what sort of narrative they are constructing about the war. At the same time I am hoping to show my students how our collective conception of the war has shifted over time (an interesting discussion of these shifts in collective memory can be found in the final chapter of Cook, 2008) by getting them to analyze how the war has been portrayed in old high school history textbooks (dating from the 1920s onward). Finally my students will either design/redesign a monument, which they feel better commemorates the First World War, or defend the maintenance of an existing monument.

It is my hope that discussing the commemoration of the First World War with my students will provide me with a window into an aspect of their historical consciousness, highlighting the way in which they see the past as connected to the present (see Seixas and Clark, 2011 for a discussion of a somewhat similar analysis of student thinking). I also hope that this investigation will alert my students to the way in which our memory of the war has changed. In so doing I will have helped my students to develop many of their historical thinking skills, while also challenging them to think of history in a more complex fashion.

This is only one of many ways to approach this topic. How are others approaching this issue?



Cook, T. (2008). Shock troops: Canadians fighting the great war 1917-1918, volume two. Toronto: Penguin.

Seixas, P., & Clark, P. (2011). Obsolete icons and the teaching of history. In P. Clark (ed.) New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (pp. 282-304). Vancouver: UBC Press.